Everyone has heard of Tonga, Hawaii, Samoa and Tahiti. But who has heard of Tahuata? Tahuata is a tired island in a different time. There is a rumor that in some of the valleys of Tahuata that the spirits mingle with the living and that you can only tell a spirit from a living person because a spirit’s feet don’t touch the ground. Nineteen of the valleys of Tahuata used to be inhabited. Only five are inhabited today, that is, inhabited by the living. Spirits remain in the other fourteen.
One of the spirits of Tahuata is Iotete. Iotete hasn’t always been a spirit. He was mortal once. Once upon a time he wanted to become the greatest hakaiki (chief) of the Marquesas, but he failed and died in 1844. By his own admission he was a little chief. The people of the valley of Vaitahu, who were ruled by Iotete, went even further. They said that he was nothing more than an insect.
In 1838 Iotete made friends with a visiting French Admiral named Dupetit-Thouar. When Iotete’s friend, Peti-Tua, as he called Dupetit-Thouar, returned in 1842, Iotete was doubly happy to see his old friend ‘Peti-Tua’. Partly because of friendship and partly because Iotete wanted to have cannons and men to fire them. Although muskets were available in the Marquesas at this time, Iotete knew that if he had cannons that he could conquer his enemies and he would be the toughest hakaiki (chief) of all time.
Iotete was too willing to provide help and assistance to Dupetit-Thouar. In return for Iotete providing food for 200 soldiers and land and timber to build a fort, Dupetit-Thouar promised to give Iotete and his people the protection of the French Navy. On the morning of May 1, 1842 Dupetit-Thouar confirmed his promise with Iotete in a ceremony. Before the ceremony, Iotete was given a red uniform, a cardboard crown and a sword. Iotete was too big to wear the sword so he carried it in his hands. The ceremony was grand, the French had a military band to play on the beach. Iotete and his people clapped their hands and cried, “Kanehau! Kanehau! (Beautiful Beautiful!)” at the appearance of the band. There was one problem in the ceremony: Iotete could not write. So he simply made an ‘X’ on the paper that the French gave him to sign. When Iotete went to bed that night, he may have been thinking that he was going to become ‘te hakaiki nui’ (the great chief).
The next day the French set to work cutting timber for the fort. Since breadfruit was the main food of Iotete and his people, there were abundant breadfruit trees in Vaitahu, so that is what the French were cutting down to build their fort. Dupetit-Thouar and his soldiers did not care if they were destroying the food supply of Iotete. They just wanted to have the food that Iotete and his people had promised.
Things became worse for Iotete when a foreigner sold the French some cattle that had been roaming in the valley of Vaitahu. Since the cattle had been eating the grass of Iotete, they were the cattle of Iotete and his people and this foreigner did not have the right to sell them. When Iotete sent his toa (warrior) to threaten the foreigner, the foreigner complained to the French and the French demanded that Iotete hand over his toa, Panau, to the French. Iotete was unable to do this because Panau had fled to Hiva Oa. So the French took Iotete’s son away to Nuku Hiva as a hostage. At this point Iotete admitted to Commander Halley, the French commander on Tahuata, that Commander Halley was the big chief and that he, Iotete, was only a little chief.
When the French came to Vaitahu they brought diseases that the Iotete and his people had never known. Iotete became ill and he sought to be healed by a priestess who told Iotete that his illness was the result of the French and that he would be healed if he left Vaitahu. So Iotete left the valley and went up into the mountains to live as a kikino, a vagabond, a person without mana or power or property. The people of Vaitahu felt the same as Iotete. They were tired of the French, so they followed Iotete up into the mountains too.
Even though Iotete’s people still brought the food to the French that they had promised, the French were alarmed that the people had left their homes. They sent a messenger into the mountains and demanded that the people return. A delegation of women came down, led by the daughter of Iotete. She presented to the French a feather fan and asked their permission to let them remain in the mountains. Although the French were moved to pity because Iotete’s daughter was clearly suffering from syphillis, they still insisted that the people return to their homes within 24 hours. To this ultimatum, Iotete’s daughter answered, “E tahi mate otau!” (One death for us all!") Then she and the other women returned into the mountains.
When the people did not return to their homes the French sent a squadron of soldiers into the mountains. The squadron was led by Commanders Halley and Ladebat who led them up the valley. At the end of stone wall the French heard a voice call out, “Tapu!” This was a warning to Commander Halley that the people of Iotete wereperforming ceremonies for war and that if he and his soldiers were not to proceed any further. The French had little respect for Marquesan beliefs about tapus, so they continued forward.
Commander Ladebat, who was in the front, was stopped due to a musket ball that was fired into his forehead. Five other soldiers fell with him that day and the grave of Commander Ladebat and those five can still be found in the valley of Vaitahu.
Although the Marquesans won the first battle, the French had cannons and Iotete’s people did not. The French also had the knowledge to resist diseases that they had brought to Tahuata and Iotete’s people did not. After several weeks of being shot at with cannons and getting sick, Iotete and his people fled over the ridgeto the next valley of Hapatoni. When Dupetit-Thouar first came to Tahuata there were 800 people in Vaitahu. Within three months there were only 200, and they were all French.
Iotete wanted to become the greatest hakaiki in the Marquesas. But he needed cannons so he made a deal with Dupetit-Thouar. In the end, those cannons were not pointed at the enemies of Iotete,instead they were pointed at Iotete and his people.
Lots of people think that if they have guns that they will be tough, or that if they get bigger guns, that they will be the toughest. Iotete thought the same too, and we see that he and hispeople paid a terrible price.
The deaths of these people in Tahuata, was a terrible waste. The spirit of Iotete calls to us to remember him and if we do, perhaps the spirits of him and his people will rest and not need to wander in the valleys of Tahuata.
Denning, Greg. Islands and Beaches
Handy, Willowdean, Forever the Land of Men
Revised: February 22, 1996
Copyright © 1996 Daniel (Taniera) Longstaff